Okay, I’m going to make myself unpopular here, I’m sure. Because these days, it seems that everyone has a cause and the way they show their social responsibility is by being a giant pain in the arse about it. And dog help anyone who dares to suggest that they should get off their soapbox for a second. But I’m still under the influence of the Honesty Ferret, so what the hell, I’m going to suggest exactly that. (At some length, too, because it’s taken me a while to tease out these ideas, so consider yourself warned!)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am the last person to say that one shouldn’t have ideals, causes and campaigns. As someone concerned about the environment, poverty, women’s rights and social justice – and far from quiet about any of those issues – it would be very hypocritical of me to say anything of the sort.
And I’m not going to mention a certain person, but unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that there are changes happening in the corridors of power in 2017 that are making a lot of people very edgy.
But I’m here to say that it’s precisely because there are important issues in the balance – vital issues, matters of life and death – that we have to be nice to each other. When the world appears to be going mad, we HAVE to find ways to talk to each other, even when it seems we are on opposite sides of a chasm.
Let me explain.
I think that, if you truly want to change something – a big complicated something that requires a society-wide change – you need to change people’s hearts and minds. And you don’t change hearts and minds by treating people as bad, wrong or stupid. But too often, that’s what people who care about things do.
Here’s how it goes: An issue comes to your attention. Maybe you, or someone you care about, has been affected by it. Say, domestic violence. You think it’s important. You get educated about it and the more you find out, the more horrified you are about the status quo. You think and feel, reasonably, that something must be done about this. You think that good people must not know about this. That if they just KNEW, they would instantly change their behaviour, or clamour for others to change theirs. And if they don’t, then they must be bad (or wrong, or stupid)….
See, here’s where it goes wrong. There are lots of reasons why people might not immediately come around to your position, no matter how right you think you are, or how many facts you have at your disposal. AND THOSE REASONS ARE VALID. In the heat of your conviction, you might not see that, but bear with me for a minute and consider the following:
- People bring to any situation their upbringing and history, both of which inform their unconscious attitudes and prejudices. You might be able to see that X is problematic and contributes to Y, but if they have always lived in an environment where X is considered harmless, they are not going to be swayed by your say-so. They are more likely to just think you’re over-reacting. And I hate to tell you this, but that ‘Y’, which to you is unequivocally, unarguably wrong? They might not see that as such a problem either. Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that marital rape wasn’t considered possible and that men were expected to ‘keep their wives in line’, with force, if ‘required’. Not agreeing with you the minute you open your mouth doesn’t necessarily make your listener a bad person. It might just mean that they are a product of their community. And you shouting at them isn’t going to encourage them to venture out of that comfortable, familiar community, is it?
- People don’t like being told they’re wrong. Annoying, but true. Even when people are demonstrably wrong about a fact, they don’t like hearing it and don’t like admitting it. You can get on your high horse all you like about objective facts – and believe me, I know they’re a thing and I know that it’s infuriating when people treat facts as something subject to ‘opinion’. But seriously, do you like being told that you are just flat-out wrong? Do you react well when people tell you that? Of course not. So if you are serious about effecting change, try to avoid telling people they are wrong – at least in as many words. Don’t force them into a position where they have to reject your argument just to save face.
- People are at different stages of evolution and knowledge. Let’s take animal rights, for instance. If someone has just found out the truth about battery hens, or the stocking densities for supposedly ‘free range’ hens, and has gone to the trouble of changing their shopping habits accordingly, that might be enough for now. They might not be ready to get into the complicated area of pig farming. Yes, vegans, I know, for you it isn’t complicated – for you, the farms shouldn’t exist at all. But I’m sure, once upon a time, you didn’t feel that way. You got to where you are now by degrees. Respect other peoples’ journey. Be patient and kind.
- People have other things on their minds. Let’s say refugee rights are your thing. For you (and believe me, I understand if this is you), the attitude of your government and even some of your country-people to the plight of refugees is horrifying. It tears at your heart and demands action. That’s great. Every cause needs champions. But if someone’s partner has just left and they don’t know how they are going to make the rent, or their kid is sick, or they’re teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, the situation of the refugees is not going to be the biggest priority for them right now. If someone doesn’t seem to see the importance of your cause, it might say less about their character than it does their circumstances. In these days of casual connection to many people we know very little about, it’s as well to give people the benefit of the doubt.
- People are overwhelmed. There are a lot of things to be concerned about in this world and in these days of the 24hr news cycle, we are bombarded with them all at once. It may sound callous, but if you let yourself care deeply about all of them, you’ll end up in a padded cell. Trust me, as someone who has been been working and volunteering for causes all my life, I know about this. You can only do what you can do. You have to pick your battles. Maybe the person you are trying desperately to convert has chosen other battles. Give them some space. Keep doing your thing, be open about it (not pushy) and let them join in when they can. Let them sponsor you in your walking or not-drinking, or buy your chocolates or whatever, and forgive them if that’s all they do for now.
NONE OF THIS MEANS THAT YOU SHOULDN’T STAND UP FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN. On the contrary, I think the times we live in demand we stand up for what we believe in. I personally am terrified that history saying of my generation ‘how could they not know?’ or ‘how could they have done nothing?’
And I’m not talking about standing up to people who are doing the wrong thing for their own political or financial gain without any care for those affected. I’m not for one minute suggesting that evil, or it’s little brother, self-interest, doesn’t exist in the world, or that we shouldn’t call it out when we see it and fight it with everything we have.
But no matter how much they frustrate you sometimes, most of the people you meet are not evil. They might not agree with you on the best way to deal with the world, but they aren’t evil, and standing up for your beliefs does not mean being horrible to them. It may mean expressing an unpopular opinion, but it never has to mean shouting people down, calling them names, or telling them they should die (or unfriend you) because they disagree with you.
In troubled times and when talking about things that matter, it is more important than ever that we respect each other.
We have to respect the other person’s right to an opinion, even if we find it odious. We have to assume goodwill and intelligence, even if the other person seems to you, in that moment, to be horrifically dense. Perhaps they are not so much dense as resistant, for any of the reasons above (or others, equally valid). We need to respect people’s right to join our cause or not, without having to justify themselves*. If we can stay polite and respectful, while we may not be able to get through in that moment, our arguments are more likely to linger in their minds than if we get our ranty-pants on.
(*This does not apply to your elected representatives, who work for you and whom you are perfectly entitled to pester on behalf of your cause. Although politeness still applies.)
We have to respect where people are and meet them there, if we want to have any chance of leading them to change. When you are well versed in a subject, it can seem amazing that other people can be uninformed, or misinformed, but as I said above, people’s journeys are all different. Listen to people and offer information as a service, rather than using it as a reproach. Trust me, I have had this courtesy extended to me, on the subject of animal welfare, and the information conveyed in that conversation has stayed with me and affected my behaviour far more than any of the ‘if you eat meat you’re a murderer’ lectures I have received in my time. The same goes for people who have taken the trouble to inform me about subjects like cultural appropriation, rather than castigating me for not already knowing. Save your anger for the system, rather than the individual. There’s a reason why people say that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
Which brings me to another important rule of respect. If you want other people to listen to you, you need to offer them the same courtesy. Listen like you mean it. You never know when you’ll discover it’s actually YOU who is wrong and who needs to change! (With thanks to Kristen Lamb for reminding me to make this point!)
It’s also helpful to respect the rules of rhetoric. The ancient Greeks knew that to convince people of an idea, you had to use more than one argument. They knew you had to have all of: LOGOS, the appeal to Logic; ETHOS, the appeal to character or credibility; and PATHOS, the appeal to emotion to make a proper case – or in other words, you had to appeal to their hearts and minds. Too often, when people get worked up about an issue, they default to one or the other of the elements, depending on their own focus. If they have soft hearts, they appeal to people’s sympathies and write others off as heartless if they counter with practical concerns. Or, if they are more logic-driven, they bombard people with facts, and write them off as stupid if emotional factors get in the way of accepting those facts. And once you’ve written people off in your own mind, even if you don’t say it, you have lost the chance to influence them.
Of course, if people are being deliberately obtuse, or for whatever reason, you can’t get through to them, it’s fine to walk away – recommended, in fact. Wilful ignorance in defiance of verifiable facts is frustrating and there are, sadly, some people whose behaviour is insupportable; you don’t have to put up with that in the name of ‘niceness’. But don’t waste your time and energy shouting back at them. You will just wear yourself out and damage your ability to engage politely with the next person you come across – and that one might be the one whose mind you can change.
And sure, have a rant if you want to. You are entitled to your opinion and entitled to express it. I have been known to have one myself from time to time. Sometimes you need to. And sometimes, if you express yourself particularly well, in a forum where people can absorb your rant without offense, you may contribute to their education, or at least provide an outlet for others similarly frustrated.
But if you rant at people, don’t kid yourself that you are doing anything helpful. Ranting is never going to create change in people’s hearts and if you are honest with yourself, you don’t need me to tell you that.
Societal change, community change is a long, hard process. It requires well-chosen and well-timed words, bucket-loads of leading by example and, hippy-drippy as it might sound, lots of love, to achieve.
So by all means, be passionate about your cause, but when you’re sharing your passion, be gentle about it. Let your actions speak at least as loudly as your words. It will get more people on board than being bombastic will. Change is, after all, created by actions. We don’t all have to agree about everything in order to work together. Lots of people making small changes will eventually cause big changes. As the outgoing President of the United States said yesterday,
Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I’m asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.
You may not get to see the utopia you yearn for, but if you can influence your community to start walking in the right direction, you’ve left the world a better place than you found it. And if you are still reading this, I figure that’s what you’re trying to do.
So what do you think? Do you think we can change the hateful stuff in our world through love and understanding? Or are you stockpiling weapons under the bed? I really want to know.
Copyright © Imelda Evans 2017